One enduring mystery of modern science is why it happened where and when it did. Had modern science emerged in late Greco-Roman antiquity, in 11th- or 12th-century Islam, or in China after the Tang dynasty, there would be no mystery. But for it to emerge in the Christian culture of 17th-century western Europe was, in retrospect, surprising.
It was not necessary that the scientific revolution emerge in the 17th century as far as anyone can tell. It was not inevitable and had not been predicted. It was not predictable that it would happen just then or in Western Europe, but nevertheless, modern science clearly did not just drop down out of the sky like some deus ex machina in a Greek play. Modern science did not just suddenly appear out of nowhere.
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Modern science clearly did not just drop down out of the sky like some deus ex machina in a Greek play.
Once it appeared, we can see that it represents the integration, the synthesis, of a lot of pieces that had been around from the time of ancient Greece and Rome, through the medieval period and especially the university context, and all of the dynamism of the Renaissance. The pieces were all there. What happened in the 17th century is that a glue was added to hold all of those pieces together, and that glue seems to be the idea of method.
Inventing the Scientific Method
There is, in fact, this typical characterization of the rise of modern science that it is the result of the discovery or invention of the scientific method. And once people grasped the scientific method, then all of a sudden all of the available tools came together in a way that generated the theories characteristic of the rise of modern science, especially the work of people like Descartes and Galileo and Christiaan Huygens in Holland, and Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. And then we march into the 18th century, the 19th, 20th, and here we are, the heirs of the riches generated by the scientific method.
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Method was a critical factor in pulling together all the pre-existing pieces that contribute to modern science: the Greek idea of knowledge; the Greek idea of knowledge of nature; the Greek idea of mathematics being the language of nature; the idea of techno-science as it arose in the Greco-Roman period; the medieval university with its sort of revival of Greek and Roman natural philosophy, with the focus on experimentation, on the use of mathematics to describe natural phenomena, and with its deep commitment to the idea that nature was a closed system, and that all natural phenomena had natural rather than supernatural explanations.
By inheriting Greek mathematics and Islamic algebraic mathematics that 16th-century European mathematicians were able to start from an already pretty high level.
The Renaissance—with its recovery of ancient learning, especially the great mathematical texts of classical antiquity—allowed European mathematics to not have to reinvent the number, as it were, but by inheriting Greek mathematics and Islamic algebraic mathematics that 16th-century European mathematicians were able to start from an already pretty high level. What emerged in the 17th century was an enormous flourishing of mathematics providing tools for people to apply mathematics to natural phenomena.
How Can We Understand Nature?
However, I think that the crucial thing to recognize is that there is no such thing as “the” scientific method. Method was central to the 17th-century natural philosophy—the intellectual activity that morphed into what we recognize as modern science—but there was no one method that all of the founders of modern science used. What is interesting and important is that a sensitivity to methodological issues was the common denominator of the founders of modern science. That is very consistent with the idea of knowledge as being central to the idea of science and now to the idea of modern science.
What the founders of modern science, the people that all historians point to as the founding figures in modern science, what all of them were concerned about was this idea of knowledge of nature and the problem that Aristotle recognized, that the medieval university recognized in the problem of universals: How can we have universal, necessary, and certain knowledge of nature if our only access to nature is experience, and experience is particular, concrete, and continually changing? That becomes an explicit and self-conscious issue that the founders of modern science wrestled with even as they insisted that, as a matter of fact, it was possible to have knowledge of nature, understanding now that it was what was behind experience. And this could not have emerged without the recognition that they were building on what their predecessors had done.
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Setting the Stage for Revolution in Modern Science
It was not a fluke that Copernicus, for example, is perceived as one of the leading contributors to the origin of modern science. His idea of a moving earth was very important to the mindset of modern science—1543, that’s 16th century; that’s not the 17th-century scientific revolution.
The same year, 1543, Andreas Vesalius, at that time in Padua at the University of Padua, transformed the study of human anatomy by publishing the first what we would call “scientific” anatomy of the human body with beautiful illustrations, systematically disassembling the human body from the skin down to the skeleton and revealing the entire structure of the human body.
Vesalius, who soon left the University of Padua because of the fame that he accrued, initiated a line of inquiry and research at the University of Padua that went on for at least a century or more, because William Harvey—the British physician who we give credit to for discovering the full circulation of the blood being pumped around by the heart, although he didn’t use exactly that language in 1628 in his book then—had studied at the University of Padua. He specifically went to the University of Padua because that was a place that was famous for what we would call “scientific medical research.” Vesalius’s students and then their students made fundamental discoveries. In the period from 1543 on, there was an enormous growth in the body of biological and botanical “information”—let’s call it “information” because I don’t want to use the word “knowledge” loosely, having made such a fuss about it.
So the founders of modern science were inheriting a great deal. They were building on a great deal. To call it a revolution is fundamentally misleading because it makes light of the evolution in which a sensitivity to method and the idea of knowledge played a key role in allowing people to integrate all of these pieces. They were lying around, so to speak, and could be pulled together and were pulled together by the people who founded modern science.